Charles Davis, Maura Lucking, Sean McPherson, Lynne Horiuchi, Itohan Osayimwese, and Gail Dubrow | Jun 04, 2020
The wrongful murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police has proven a tipping point in the attitudes and actions of many Americans. Protesters around the country have taken to the streets, during an unprecedented pandemic, to demonstrate their commitment to securing for black Americans the basic rights and protections of every person. We share in their hurt and anger.
It was nearly seven years ago that Dianne Harris penned a poignant essay for the Society of Architectural Historians entitled “Race, Space, and Trayvon Martin.”1
In this essay, Harris describes the way that the structures and ideologies of anti-black racism were made material in the tragic death of Trayvon Martin. How histories of spatial segregation and gated communities came to a head in what was described as a young black man literally “out of place." Her conclusion that race and space are inextricably linked in deadly ways for many minorities should not come as any surprise to us today. As these insights were made during the, now retrospectively, optimistic Obama years, writing such words seemed to hold the promise of better things to come. Yet instead of witnessing a decline in violence against black Americans, we find ourselves facing more and more tragedy, sometimes on a daily basis, as cell phone footage and investigative journalism reveal the routine character of anti-black racism in the United States.
From the signs of young black children reading “Stop Killing Us” in Tampa to the human barricade willing to stand between black protesters and police officers in Louisville, we can find examples of people deciding to take action to ensure that our nation lives up to its promises of life and liberty.2 These individuals are joined by hundreds of other Americans—people of every age, color, and economic background—who support their efforts, but feel powerless, afraid, or unsure about how to contribute. ‘What is it that I can do to help?’ ‘What can I possibly do that will make a difference?’
If our peers can take to the streets and risk their health and lives for a political principle, even as the White House threatens to respond to such lawful protests with military force, then we must at least summon the courage to publicly acknowledge the importance of their sacrifice. Their work is essential to maintaining a healthy democracy and we stand in solidarity with their efforts.
In addition to the positive change that we can contribute as private individuals, as members of the Society of Architectural Historians we can also work together as academics, designers, historians, and practitioners to listen closely to, support and amplify the work of black communities and black scholars; to ask serious questions of ourselves and our discipline before moving forward; and, when possible, to raise the consciousness of those around us who still doubt that we truly have a problem with police violence or racism in America. In a moment when the policing of our streets and public spaces veers dangerously close to martial law,3 when the destruction of private property is termed a form of ‘violence,’4 when the buildings and memorials of capitalism and white supremacy topple and burn, how could architecture not be implicated?5 To quote a Minneapolis business owner: “We can rebuild a building, but we cannot rebuild a human.”6
We owe it to each other to reflect upon the intergenerational trauma, loss and violence that continues to be caused by racism in this country and to consider what roles we can play in its amelioration. “We owe it to our students and their peers to bring these issues of racial justice into the core of design education.”7 Faculty and administrators must find substantive ways to engage these issues in the courses we will design for the upcoming semester and beyond—and to support our students in their own anti-racist work in and out of the classroom. We also have a professional obligation as scholars of the built environment to educate the public on the historical patterns of anti-black racism that make today’s protests a predictable feature of our contentious times.
The collective leadership of three of SAH’s recently established affiliate groups—Asian American & Diasporic Architectural History, Minority Scholars, and Race and Architectural History—have dedicated themselves to promoting research and scholarly activities that uncover the historical causes of racism in our professions and in the built environment more broadly. We encourage every member of SAH reading this message not to treat this as a time to continue with business as usual. The pandemic is not an opportune time to get lots of regular work done, nor is it a time to hide away from the world as parts of our country burn. Rather, now is the time to promote collective action—to share our resources, expertise, and energy to affirm, yet again, that BLACK LIVES MATTER. We welcome all active members of SAH to join any of the affiliate groups mentioned above to contribute to our efforts, as well as to promote positive actions in our local communities. SAH’s scholarly mission can and must be to engage with the world within and beyond the academy to make racial justice possible.
Charles Davis – Assistant Professor of Architectural History, SUNY Buffalo and Chair of SAH Race and Architectural History Affiliate Group
Maura Lucking – PhD Candidate in Architecture, UCLA and Associate Chair of SAH Race and Architectural History Affiliate Group
Sean McPherson – Associate Professor of Art History, Bridgewater State University and Chair of SAH Asian American & Diasporic Architectural History Affiliate Group
Lynne Horiuchi – Independent Scholar and Co-Chair of SAH Minority Scholars Affiliate Group
Itohan Osayimwese – Associate Professor, History of Art & Architecture, Brown University, Co-Chair of SAH Minority Scholars Affiliate Group
Gail Dubrow – Professor of Architecture and History, University of Minnesota
2 “America’s Protests Won’t Stop Until Police Brutality Does,” The New York Times (June 1, 2020)
3 Dan Zak, Monica Hesse, Ben Terries, Maura Judkis and Travis M. Andrews,“’This can’t be happening’: An oral history of 48 surreal, violent, biblical minutes in Washington,” The Washington Post (June 2, 2020). Ian Shapira, “For 200 years, the Insurrection Act has given presidents the power to deploy the military to quell unrest,” The Washington Post (June 3, 2020).
4 Nathan J. Robinson, “Why Damage to Property Isn’t The Same As ‘Violence,’” Current Affairs (June 1, 2020). Rebecca Solnit, “As the George Floyd protests continue, let’s be clear where the violence is coming from,” The Guardian (June 1, 2020).
5 Sharon McNary, “Black Lives Matter Los Angeles Leader Explains ‘Very Deliberate’ Choice to Demonstrate in Upscale Neighborhoods,” LAist (May 31, 2020). Dakota Smith, Stetve Saldivar, “Protesters march toward Beverly Hills demanding justice,” Los Angeles Times (May 31, 2020). Lynda Robinson, “Robert E. Lee statue and Daughters of the Confederacy building attacked by Richmond Protestors,” The Washington Post (May 31, 2020). Paul Blest, “Confederate Statues and other symbols of Racism All Over the Country were Destroyed by Protestors this Weekend,” Vice (June 1, 2020).
7 Harris, “Race, Space, and Trayvon Martin”